Replacing May is not just a game for the entitled. We must all have a say | Gaby Hinsliff

Jacob Rees-Mogg is famously not short of nannies.

So whatever persuaded him to bring his 12-year-old son with him to last weekend’s council of war at Chequers, it probably wasn’t a childcare emergency. Apparently, Mogg the Younger sat outside and read a book about cricket, before joining the grownups for coffee.

It’s been days now, and yet I am still half-wondering if this actually happened or if it was some sort of Brexit anxiety dream. But it’s real, of course. It’s perhaps best understood as a rather extreme variant of what so many middle-class parents do: drawing the kids into our professional worlds, letting them spin in our office swivel chairs, planting the idea that one day they too will grow up and do something like this. It’s one of those tiny, human but ultimately insidious ways in which privilege is hoarded, opportunity handed down the generations. Should the mini-Moggs ever be invited to Chequers as adults, they won’t be daunted. If not quite born to rule, they’re certainly being raised to be comfortable with the idea.

This sense of power changing hands behind closed doors stuck with me, I think, because it symbolises something bigger going on within the Conservative party. The idea – that if Theresa May ever actually manages to resign, the nation’s future relationship with Europe will be settled via a Tory leadership contest from which the nation is shut out – is almost obscene. Yet that’s what Tory MPs seem to think they can get away with.

This week, May swallowed her pride – and doubtless some anger at being put in this position by a bunch of chancers – and told her MPs she would resign if they backed her deal. The irreconcilables get what they want, namely a chance to install one of their own. Amazingly, Boris Johnson has backed this chance to make himself prime minister, all his noisy reservations about the deal magically overcome. For many, that will merely confirm the enraging suspicion that it was never about the deal itself, but about who holds the power; that we have all been dangled over the abyss of no deal for nothing.

If the deal does not pass, then, technically, May could stay. But, in practice, the leadership campaigns are already up and running, and the haggling over who gets which job, in whose imaginary future administration, has begun. All confidence in May to handle the next tortuous stage of negotiations has drained away. It’s over, essentially; it’s just a matter of when.

Yet cabinet ministers musing aloud over whether a long, drawn-out leadership contest, allowing a few young pretenders to make a name for themselves, beats a rushed one need their heads examining. Yes, going long probably would be in the party’s best interests. But the arrogance of assuming these are synonymous with the nation’s interests – that we’re all fine with months of contemplating a black hole where the prime minister ought to be while they hustle to fill it – is breathtaking. What some Tory MPs don’t seem to realise is that in deposing her, they sacrifice their right to decide what happens next.

It should be said that no party has a monopoly on self-interest. Jeremy Corbyn has spent months endlessly demanding a general election, while endlessly obfuscating about what Labour’s manifesto line on Brexit would be, for fear of jeopardising his chances of getting into Downing Street. May’s separation of the vote on a withdrawal agreement that simply gets us out of the EU (where Corbyn’s differences with her are pretty negligible) from its accompanying political declaration on the longterm relationship is a desperate attempt to make him pick a side.

But it’s the Tories who have been blurring national and party interests ever since David Cameron decided to try to settle an internal party battle over Europe via a national referendum. May had the chance to turn things around by opening up a genuinely cross-party Brexit process, but didn’t because she too sees things largely through a blue prism. She mistook Tory voters’ widespread delight in the referendum result for the national mood, and when the 2017 election proved her wrong, could not adapt.

Jeremy Corbyn at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, March 2019

‘Some voters will despair at a general election choice between Corbyn and whoever emerges from the Tory hunger games.’ Photograph: Aris Oikonomou/AFP/Getty Images

May is too tribal a Tory to understand what drives the Labour party, and so every time she tried to reach out she either sounded clumsy – attempting to bribe Labour MPs in leave seats with irrelevant dollops of funding – or quickly retreated to the devil she knew. Minutes of recent Cabinet meetings on Brexit are now said to be so peppered with references to Tory, not national, fortunes that some civil servants worry about what any future public inquiry might think.

Governing is not just a game of pass the parcel, where power is handed between different Conservative factions until someone unwraps a serviceable Brexit. Those are our lives you’re playing with, and we all deserve a look-in. Whether that means a second referendum or a general election is now for parliament to resolve, but either way the fortunes of a nation must now be separated from the fortunes of one imploding party or another.

The risk is that another referendum could simply mean another horribly close vote, followed by more years of rage. Some voters will despair at a general election choice between Corbyn and whoever emerges from the Tory hunger games.

But you can’t spend three years preaching about the will of the people and then treat voters like children in the 1970s, left in the car park with some crisps to keep them quiet while the grownups go to the pub. If Tory MPs want to break their own prime minister in the middle of a national crisis, fine. But if so, it’s for the nation to decide who – and what – replaces her.

Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.